The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 364: Seeking Pals on Palawan

Chart of Palawan

Like most travelers in the Pacific, Captain Everett divided its islands into three categories: flat ones, tall ones, and long narrow ones. Palawan was most definitely one of the latter. It loomed ahead of the airship like an immense green curb -- a parking space, perhaps, for chariots of some elder gods.

"It's somewhat larger than I anticipated," Iverson observed glumly.

"Quite," said Everett. Their charts might portray the island in meticulous detail, but this did little to convey just how much surface area they might have to cover in their search for the Korean educational mission.

"Where should we look first, sir?" MacKiernan asked the captain.

Everett suppressed a sigh. "I shall consider the matter while we resupply."

They called at Tatay, the old Spanish capital near the northeastern end of the island. It might not have been as substantial as the new American administrative center at Puerto Princesa, but it was less likely to harbor unwanted observers. Like the rest of Palawan, the town had suffered some neglect since the United States had taken the Philippines from Spain in 1898. This was hardly surprising, since the island's principal exports were agricultural goods that competed directly with produce back in America. But the pace of life here seemed unaffected by the change in colonial overlords. The old Spanish fort still slumbered next to the harbor, the market still thronged with merchants, and church bells still chimed at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, and None to ring in the hours.

Reasoning that teachers could be expected to keep track of the competition, Everett sent MacKiernan and Miss Perkins to inquire about the Koreans at the local Jesuit school. Like its fellows throughout the world, this offered education to anyone willing to embrace an alien faith. Were the Koreans the same, wondered MacKiernan? Did they demand that their students appreciate fermented cabbage? This might explain their conspicuous lack of success.

"We will wish to be circumspect," he warned Miss Perkins. "We don't want to give away the purpose of our investigation."

The secretary favored him with the same expression grandmothers might give children who offered advice on egg consumption. "Allow me to handle the matter," she replied.

The headmaster was a portly Spaniard in clerical garb. From his tan, his sun-bleached tonsure, and his easy-going manner, it seemed he'd been in the islands for quite some time. "Welcome to our mission," he said cheerfully. "I am Father Miguel. How may I help you?"

"I'm Miss Perkins, secretary for the Royal Navy's educational system in Cairns, Australia, and this is my escort, Lieutenant Commander MacKiernan," said Miss Perkins. "I've been admiring your school. How extensive is your curriculum?"

The cleric beamed at the compliment. "We begin with basic literacy, teaching these children to read and write," he told them. "From there we progress to arithmetic, moral instruction, and the history of the Church."

Miss Perkins's nod was quite convincing. "I imagine it must be a challenge to teach these people a foreign language and alphabet. Do they have a writing system of their own?"

The cleric smiled. "Ah, you must be looking for those Koreans!"

MacKiernan and Miss Perkins exchanged glances. "I suppose this is possible," MacKiernan admitted.

"They called at Taytay, but there was no need for their services here, so they went on to Coron Island to work among the Tcho Tcho. No.. wait.. that tribe is somewhere over in Burma. It must have been the Tagbanwa."

Coron Island was a few dozen miles northeast of Palanwan -- a short hop on an island blimp. This one was a Goodyear product, retired to the Pacific after a long but not particularly speedy career in the United States. Its engines might not have sounded quite the same as Sunbeams, and the various notices and placards might have displayed some odd Colonial misspellings, but it wasn't significantly different from its British equivalents. There was only so much scope for innovation in the design of non-rigid dirigibles.

This was hardly the first time MacKiernan and Miss Perkins had journeyed together. The Irishman glanced at his companion and reflected on their travels. "Do you remember that flight we made in the Solomons to visit those German planters?" he asked her.

"Of course," she said. "They were quite the surly lot, but you and Rashid put paid to the fellows. Do you remember our voyage on Helga's freighter?"

MacKiernan had the courtesy to blush. "I'll never forget that night, Alice."

"I'll never forget either, Fergus," she replied wistfully. "Circumstances keep us apart. You're loyal to your captain, I'm loyal to mine."

"That may be so," MacKiernan observed. "Still, Everett offers us loyalty in return. Michaelson was quite willing to sacrifice you as a pawn against the Japanese nationalists. What hold does the man have over you?"

She looked at him sadly, then rested a hand on his. "It's not what you fear, Fergus," she said. "His story is complicated. I'm not at liberty to explain it now."

He checked to make sure no one was watching, then gave her hand a kiss. "I can wait, Alice," he told her. "However long it may take, I can wait."

Like other members of the Calimines group, Coron was a limestone island, with steep jungle-covered ridges divided by a maze of valleys, sinkholes, and lakes. According to a brochure they found aboard the blimp, some of the latter were connected by tunnels to the sea. Some attempt had been made to develop the island for tourism -- hence the brochure -- but tourists continued to neglect the place in droves.

The closest thing the island had to a capital was an unprepossessing village called either Calimines Administrative Center Three, Coron, or simply 'The Village', depending on how formal one might be feeling. Its air station was a rickety mooring mast, a small fuel depot, and a cluster of storage sheds administered by an old airman -- evidently a veteran of the War. MacKiernan and Miss Perkins found him at the operations shack, inflating a weather balloon to take the day's sounding.

"Good afternoon," the man announced in a lilting Cymric accent. "What brings you to our fair island?"

Miss Perkins's eyes widened in surprise. "You sound like a Welshman."

"Aye," said the man. "This is a long way from Penrhyndeudraeth in the county of Gwyendd, but it seemed a fine place to retire."

"I'm Miss Perkins, Royal Navy auxiliary, and this is Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan," Miss Perkins told him. "We're seeking... information. Do you know anything about the team of Korean educators that visited this island?"

"Oh yes, the Hunminjeongeum Society," said the man. Some quirk of Welsh phonetics made it possible for him to pronounce this name without calamity. "They arrived a year or two ago to teach people their alphabet. They tried hard, but these Tagbanwa have already adopted the Baybayin script. Also, no one could understand their accent."

"Do you recall a lady named Miss Kim?" asked Miss Perkins.

"Aye!" exclaimed the man. "That was one rhywiol fenyw!"

From Miss Perkins's expression, MacKieran guessed their host had voiced some impropriety. "Did she arrive with the others?" asked the secretary.

"No," the man said. "She came with the second group, aboard that airship."

"Airship?" MacKiernan and Miss Perkins exclaimed in unison.

"I didn't recognize the class, but it was a modern design, a bit over three million cubic feet, with three engines in a pusher configuration."

"Do you recall her name?" asked MacKiernan.

Their host thought this over. "It was something foreign-sounding, like Wolkenflieger."

MacKiernan and Miss Perkins exchanged glances. "Fergus," the secretary whispered urgently, "could that have been..."

"Aye," MacKiernan whispered back. "That was our own ship, before we took her from the Germans. What was she doing aboard?"

Next week: A Few Things Happened While You Were Away...

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